A silvicultural and economic comparison of clearcutting and partial cutting studies in northeastern North America

by Caitlyn Chappell and Jamie Simpson

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We reviewed and synthesized information sources that examine yield, regeneration, stand composition, costs, revenue and employment generated by clearcutting and partial cutting systems in the Acadian and other forest types in north-eastern North America with the aim of informing an analysis of the potential impacts of reducing the prevalence of clearcutting in Nova Scotia.

Of the seventeen sources reviewed, four sources involved sugar maple dominated hardwood stands (Metzger and Tubbs 1978; Niese and Strong 1992; Robinson 1997; Stevenson 1996). Two other sources examined northern conifer dominated mixed-woods (Frank and Blum 1987; Sendak et al. 2003). One source examined each of the following forest types: black spruce-balsam fir stands (Liu et al. 2007), hemlock dominated softwoods (Pannozzo and O’Brien 2001), red spruce dominated softwoods (Stewart et al. 2009), mixedwoods (Conservation Council of New Brunswick 2000), red spruce and balsam fir dominated mixed-woods (Pothier and Prévost 2008), beech dominated hardwoods (Leak and Wilson 1958) and red maple and beech dominated hardwoods (Leak 2003). Two sources examined forests that cover multiple forest types, including hardwoods, softwoods and mixed-woods (Erdle and Ward 2008; Pannozzo and O’Brien 2001), while another two sources did not describe in detail a particular forest type (Lansky 2002; Salonius 2007).

Each of the six sources that examine growth and yield indicate that over the longer term (30-150 years), selection cutting, including single tree, group and strip cutting methods, generates growth and yield similar to or greater than the growth and yield obtained from clearcutting (Conservation Council of New Brunswick 2000; Erdle and Ward 2008; Niese and Strong 1992; Pannozzo and O’Brien 2001; Sendak et al. 2003; Stevenson et al. 1996). Yield and growth obtained from selection cutting was 2% to 74% higher than growth and yield obtained from clearcutting on similar sites.

Each of the three sources that compare regeneration after group and/or single tree selection cutting and clearcutting, including the only study conducted in Nova Scotia, indicate that selection cutting treatments (1) favour the regeneration of shade-tolerant species over shade-intolerant species, and (2) promote better regeneration of shade-tolerant species than clearcutting treatments (Frank and Blum 1978; Metzger and Tubbs 1971; Stewart et al. 2009). Two of the studies found total stocking after group and/or single tree selection cutting to be 50% and 10% higher than after clearcutting (Metzger and Tubbs 1971; Stewart et al. 2009) and the other study found total stocking to be equal after partial cutting and clearcutting (98-99%) (Frank and Blum 1978). Only one of the five studies examining regeneration found total stocking to be lower following single tree selection than following large scale clearcutting (Leak and Wilson 1958); this study was conducted in old-growth forest conditions, which are unlike most of Nova Scotia’s forests (Mosseler et al. 2003).

The three sources that compare stand compositions 15 to 43 years after clearcutting and partial harvest treatments (group and/or single tree selection) show that selection cutting methods can result in a greater prevalence of shade-tolerant tree species than clearcutting (Conservation Council of New Brunswick 2000; Leak and Wilson 1958; Sendak et al. 2003). One source found that the presence of red spruce and other preferred crop species had increased during the eight years following single tree and group selection harvests (Stewart et al. 2009). As well, one study (Leak 2003) showed that 1/5 ha (1/2 acre) patch cutting increases the abundance of yellow and white birch compared to the original stand.

The five information sources that examine employment indicate that employment per unit volume of wood harvested is approximately equal or higher under partial cutting systems than clearcutting, ranging between 3% less and 370% more employment per unit volume (Erdle and Ward 2008; Lansky 2002; Pannozzo and O’Brien 2001; Stevenson et al. 1996).

The four information sources that examine harvesting profitability indicate that partial cutting can be profitable (Liu et al. 2007; Niese and Strong 1992; Robinson 1997; Salonius 2007). One of these four sources indicates that single tree selection harvesting may yield 11.5% higher mean profits per cubic metre compared to the clearcut treatment ($58.40/m3 and $52.39/m3) (Liu et al. 2007). Another study indicates that relative to an uncut stand, the net present value (NPV) of single tree selection cut treatments ($496) are on average higher than the NPV of clearcutting ($-401) (Niese and Strong 1992). Stevenson et al. (1996) also indicate partial cutting can generate 100% or 190% more revenue per unit area than clearcutting, depending on the site being cut.

Based on results of this information synthesis, we suggest that forestry in Nova Scotia on sites similar to those studied could be profitable and provide increased employment and yield if Nova Scotia were to transition away from clearcutting as the dominate harvest method. Increasing the use of partial harvesting methods, particularly single tree and group selection harvesting methods, could also increase the regeneration of shade tolerant, late-succession species that characterize mature Acadian Forests.

We recognize that single tree and group selection harvesting may not be silviculturally appropriate for all sites in Nova Scotia, thus the results presented here should not be construed to apply equally to all sites. We suggest that these results apply to those sites that are silvicultually appropriate for partial cutting systems, as well as some sites with potential for restoration to silviculturally appropriate, and more valuable, Acadian Forest assemblages.

The possible increase in harvest costs associated with a shift to partial cutting systems could be partially off-set by (1) redirecting a portion of current silviculture spending from practices associated with clearcutting to practices that promote partial cutting, and (2) adding new silviculture funding specifically for partial cutting treatments on private lands.

If our calculations and the assumptions of Erdle and Ward (2008) and the New Brunswick Federation of Woodlot Owners are correct, then reducing clearcutting across Nova Scotia by 50% while maintaining a provincial harvest level at Nova Scotia’s 10-year average annual harvest volume would increase the overall cost of harvesting by $4.06 to $5.07 per m3 on private lands and $3.68 to $4.60 per m3 on public lands (14.4% to 18.1% and 12.8% to 16.0% of the current estimated average cost per volume of wood harvested, respectively) due to the lower harvesting efficiency of selection cutting methods. We estimate that $1.87 and $8.65 per m3 are currently spent by the NS government on clearcutting-associated silviculture practices on private and public lands in Nova Scotia, respectively, which indicates an opportunity to offset potential increased costs of single tree and group selection harvesting through re-direction of silviculture spending, especially on Crown land. Other sources indicate that single tree selection harvesting could cost two to three times as much as clearcutting (Niese and Strong 2002, K. Thomas, personal communication, April 6th, 2010), and as a result, re-directing silviculture spending may not be sufficient to cover the increased costs of this harvesting method.

Over the longer term (>25 years), the potential increased harvesting costs of single tree and group selection harvesting might also be offset by an increased timber yield per unit of land, and an increased per-unit-value of harvested wood, especially of hardwood, as the timber quality and species composition of stands improves.

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